Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Leading Readers

I once received a prestigious award to study for a doctoral degree. The foundation that funded the grant, which was offered to students in all fields (I concentrated in American Studies), used three major criteria to determine who merited an award: academic achievement, passion for the value of education, and commitment to teaching as a career.

In addition to a generous sum of money, the award was an invitation into a fellowship. The foundation gathered my group of fellows for a week-long conference to meet one another and fellows from previous years. When the family that founded the program decided to shut it down, the foundation invited all fellows present and past to a last conference.

Many fellows went on to illustrious academic careers. I did not. Unable to find a suitable academic position after a time of contract teaching, I changed careers. Though there were understandable and compelling reasons to leave teaching, I felt at the time that I had betrayed the fellowship.

Although I did not understand this until recently, an invitation four years ago to lead a reading class at Richard Hugo House provided another chance to fulfill the intent of the fellowship. The invitation came from the Hugo House program director, who had peg me as a candidate for leading a class on Proust’s novel Swann’s Way. It would be an experiment for us both. The writing center was offering a couple reading classes for the first time. Although I had taught, I had never led a reading group.

Eight readers signed up for the six-week class. Discussion was lively. I asked the readers to make a short presentation on anything relevant to our reading, if they would like. No pressure. Each week I presented material I thought would clarify the reading. At the end of the six-week session, the class asked me to go on with In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. The class changed—several people dropped out and several new readers joined—but after some shuffling the group went on to read all of In Search of Lost Time.

A group that reads Proust can have heady discussions. Who are the different Marcels? Which is narrating? Why does Marcel Proust name his protagonist “Marcel”? Is Proust a Platonist or a Nietzchean? I raised topics, but let the group make its way through discussions. Readers were avid, open to ideas, engaged with one another. Each class seemed to bring new insights. I learned to hold back, allow the group exchange ideas, argue, commiserate (“I could kill Marcel.” “Isn’t he a jerk!”).

Since that multi-year session on Proust, I have gone on to lead groups in Moby-Dick, Henry James (an ongoing project), and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. By leading, I have been teaching in a way very different from my experience in the college classroom, reminding me of Elizabeth Hardwick’s observation that reading “consoles, it excites, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind. It is a moral illumination.” For both readers and leader.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Tony Judt on Social Democracy

“Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so? We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it. Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?”

In the current New York Review of Books, Tony Judt explores the history of our apparent inability to discuss social problems in moral terms. More here.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Shya Scanlon’s Forecast, Chapter 33

Forecast, a novel by Shya Scanlon, is being serialized over 42 different literary websites in the span of 21 weeks. Forecast found a home at Flatmancrooked and will be released in hardcover in Spring, 2010.

Read Chapter 32 at Michael Kimball.
You can find Chapter 34 at Terry Seluck's blog.

Of course, what could I do but watch. Blain led Helen and Rocket down a steep switchback ramp into the main area of the edu-musement park and I sat in my little wired-up viewing room, all wound-up, and watched. I watched, and waited. The Professor, when giving his first lecture to incoming Surveillants, likes to use a quote from Franz Kafka both to prepare people for what they face, and to remind them of the fact that they might not always fully understand it, or fathom its full scope:

“All human errors are impatience, a premature breaking off of methodical procedure, an apparent fencing-in of what is apparently at issue.”

Obviously, this quote is relevant not because we are often waiting for some particular thing, as Surveillants, but simply a good principle to guide our temperament when performing the job. One is rarely tasked with looking for specific behavior, attitude or information in or from a watchjob; the Surveillant must stand back, rather, and create his or her narrative without prejudice, absorbing all data and filtering via the intuitive connection one establishes with one’s subject. Perhaps this is why I found it so excruciating as I watched, just then, and waited for the Professor to return. Each laborious, careful step they took down into the pit was painful. Each small pause for Rocket to sniff something out, or for Helen’s seemingly innumerable examinations of the wall on which the ramp was built, or of the ramp itself, or of the view. The whole thing was maddening, and it wasn’t until they’d fully descended to the park floor that the Professor finally appeared behind me, and tapped my shoulder.

I turned around and opened my mouth to exclaim only to find a hand over my mouth, and the Professor’s index finger raised to his lips.

“Shh,” he said. “Follow me.”

I turned back the monitors. “But Professor, Helen is…”

“Zara can wait for a minute, this is more important.”

The Professor gave me a look that made it quite clear I was not to refuse. I double-checked the recording devices, locked the keyboards, and stood up.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “But you know I don’t like to leave her alone.”

“Come with me. Quickly.”

The Professor led me out of the room and down the hallway. We passed by door after door leading to other viewing rooms, and I wondered if there were any other watchjobs out there with warrants, and how their Surveillant was responding. Was the Professor helping anyone else out? Was anyone else being separated from their subject? We took two more turns, went down a staircase, and I’d just begun to wonder whether he was taking me to a high security area when he suddenly stopped, put his face to a wall where his retina was scanned, and then disappeared right through it.

Of course I’d seen this kind of technology before, but I didn’t know we employed it in the office, and I certainly hadn’t used it myself. I stood in front of the wall, and, looking closely, could see that what was before me was not solid. Nonetheless, plunging headlong into it gave me pause. I stuck a finger through, then a hand. I edged the tip of my foot through, not wanting to trip. Suddenly my hand was grabbed, and I was pulled through the wall into a large room with long steel tables and various instruments lying about, mechanical and otherwise. There weren’t any windows, but the light was soft, ambient, not the harsh industrial lighting of the areas outside this strange sanctum.

“Sorry, Max,” the Professor said. “You weren’t moving quick enough.”

I looked back at the wall I’d come through. It was a clearly marked door.

“Is this your… office?”

“My lab, yes. Now come with me. There’s something I want you to see.”

We walked past a number of tables, all strewn with papers, gadgets, and as we walked the Professor began to explain.

“The bad news is I couldn’t find the source of Zara’s warrant, which means it’s either very high, or Homeland Security.”

We passed a table with several caged mice on it, most of which were alive.

“Not to toot my own horn, here, but I think you know I’ve got friends in high places. Damn near the top, actually, in most departments but Homeland Security. Never had any interest, frankly, and they’ve never invited me to any parties, if you catch my meaning. Comes down to a different set of values, I guess. Point is, we’re on our own on the warrant, for the time being.”

We stopped at a table that was covered with AS-Masks in various states of disassembly.

“The AS-Masks are a different story.”

The cool almond eyes stared in all directions despite being cut crosswise, lengthwise, or pulled apart in layers. The ducts that pulled moisture from the skin and excreted it onto the surface of the mask were under microscopes, as were patches of the mask skin itself, which, so lifelike, gave the scene an almost macabre aspect. The Professor, either not sensing my discomfort or simply ignoring it, picked up a flap of slightly hairy skin and waved it in my face. I took a step back.

“At first I was baffled,” he said, and put the piece back down. “Of course, I didn’t know what I was looking for.

“I took a few apart in every way I could think of before deciding to take a step back and assuming a fresh perspective.”

The Professor came closer and put his arm around me in a friendly, fatherly way. He gave my back a few light pats.

“And Max, it was something you said that really got me going in the right direction.”

“It was?” I felt my cheeks flush.

“It was indeed. I remembered that before I found out about how they’d been paid for, you’d described some strange behavior you’d noticed in Helen when she wears one.”

“Right, she gets all…”

“Well, I didn’t notice any strange behavior, per se, but your observation made me consider the objects from a different perspective. I put one on.”

“What happened?” I asked, trying to mask my impatience with enthusiasm. “What did you see?”

“What did I see? Well, I just saw the room, of course. But follow me over here for a second.”

We walked over to a conduction spot near a panel of monitors not unlike those in my view room. This conduction apparatus, however, had gauges I’d never seen before. The ETM glowed a bit, and as we stood in the spot it began to pulse, the gauges mounted beside it lighting up.

“These gauges measure the emotional input occurring during transfer. I’ve been keeping a record for my own research of my output, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is, here.” He handed me an AS-Mask. “Put it on.”

“Right here?” I asked, but didn’t wait for an answer. I put on the mask, and turned toward the Professor. Sure enough, the room looked no different. “What am I supposed to see?”

“I’ll show you,” he said, and turned me toward the gauges again. They indicated a reasonably low level of input. I was pleased, at least, that this didn’t come at a time when I had something significant to hide. It would have been embarrassing. “But I don’t really know what my average is,” I protested.

“Of course you don’t. But that’s not the point. Now take the mask off while keeping an eye on the gauge.”

I did so, and right as I removed the mask the indicator leapt up ten or fifteen percent higher than it had been.

“It shot up,” I said. “What does that mean? Should it have gone down?” I suddenly felt ashamed.

“No no, it did exactly what it was supposed to. You see, these masks are made to deflect a certain percentage of emotional energy from its natural path to the ETM, so there’s less stored. That’s why you see a jump in the amount registered by my gauges when you take the apparatus off.”

I was struggling to put this together, and I must say that my thoughts of Helen walking through that park all alone stymied my attempts at logic even further.

“But if the masks are made by the Energy Department,” I asked, “why wouldn’t they want that energy stored?”

“That’s just it, Max. It is being stored. Just not by the person wearing the mask. My theory is that the ambient emotional energy is being somehow absorbed into what are probably vast cells of ETMs.”


“Well, I don’t know yet.”


“But that’s where you come in.”

“Me? Professor, really, I have to get back to Helen. Can’t we—”

“If you really want to help Helen, Max, we need to know where this energy is being stored, and who is responsible.”

“But can’t someone else—”

“No!” The Professor barked. “We can’t trust anyone with this.”

“But what can I do? I mean how am I supposed to find this?”

“I’ve created something for you, Max.” The Professor picked up a small device from a table behind us. It resembled an old-fashioned radio, complete with a telescoping antenna and an analogue dial. There were wires taped to the sides and a small, red, digital screen showing a single bar, hovering toward the end marked 0.

“I’ve reengineered a small, portable ETM to act as a kind of divining rod,” he said. He handed it to me. “When wearing the AS-Mask, you’ll be able to track the direction of the deflected emotional transfer. You’ll be able to adjust the signal reception with that knob.”

I looked at the device in my hand, then back at the Professor.

“It should lead you to where this energy is being stored. I want you to take a look around, and report back to me.”

I was stunned. This is not the type of thing I was supposed to be doing. This was not the type of thing I was trained for. Furthermore, Helen needed me. Rocket was a little wimp, and who the hell knew about Blain – he was a criminal, after all. He could be delivering her directly into the hands of whoever posted the warrant!

“Professor, please,” I said. I no longer cared how I sounded. “I’m just not up to this. I have no experience—”

“Spying? You have no experience spying? My dear boy,” he said, “you’re one of the best we’ve got. The only difference here is that you’ll be there in person, seeing it with your own eyes!”

“Yes, but…”

“No buts! This must be done! I would do it myself, Maxwell, but I’m an old man. I can’t move very well at all, let alone quickly, and besides, I can cover for you much more easily than you can for me. Believe me, I’ve thought this out quite thoroughly, and it’s the only way.”

My mind raced for another good excuse, but it occurred to me that I didn’t truly know why I didn’t want to do this, or rather, that the true reason might in fact be as simple as fear. Fear isn’t the most invalid reason, of course, but it also wasn’t the reason I was giving, and wasn’t, moreover, going to further expand the Professor’s understanding of the situation at hand, or help him help me help her. I was at a loss.

“The only way,” I repeated, just to see how it sounded coming from my own mouth.

As resignation closed in, uncomfortably tight, around the role I was to play in what had to be done, I played with the machine I’d been given, turning it over in my hands, and it gave me an idea.

“Let me bring a portable viewing device, too,” I said, “so I can keep track of Helen’s movement, and contribute any insight that might be needed to interpret the situation.”

I knew this would be valuable, but what I didn’t know is whether or not carrying two devices might be cumbersome, or whether splitting my attention between the two would reduce the effectiveness of either task.

We were walking back to the table with the masks and the Professor paused, looked up at the ceiling, and thought. Likely, his calculation was of the above two issues, and in addition how far he could push me before I snapped, or made some other error in judgment. He needed me invested, and knew that if I was going to completely abandon my post, I’d need some assurance that I wasn’t entirely alone.

Though of course we’ll never know what he was really thinking.

At any rate, he agreed.

“I want you to use extreme caution,” he said, while we picked out the right size mask for me. “Both of the devices you’ll be carrying can under no circumstances leave your possession.”

“I understand.”

“If you think you’ll be unable to keep hold of them for any reason, they should be destroyed.”

We found a mask that fit, and I walked over to a small mirror above an industrial sized sink. I’d never worn one before, nor had I worn any kind of mask, really, since childhood.

“Had you ever worn one of these before today?” I asked.

“Heavens no,” the Professor said. “But I can’t say I blame the public for wanting protection from people like us.”

“People like us?”

“The people watching.”

“It feels…” I looked for the right word. “Powerful.”

“Then it’s doing its job.”

I thought of watching Helen in hers, and found the thought that we’d both be out there, in the world, looking so similar, strangely erotic.

The Professor shuffled off to a far wall and returned with the tiny monitor I’d use to keep tabs on Helen’s progress.

“Have you used one of these?” he asked.

“Yeah, just in the lab, but I should be okay.”

“I’ll be in your viewing room, and you can use it to speak to me if you need to. But keep the conversation to a minimum, if you can. I haven’t been at the helm for years, and it’s going to take all of my concentration.”

We walked together to the door of his workshop, and the Professor paused, letting me walk ahead. I turned around.

“What now?” I asked. “Where do I start?”

“Why, right here, of course,” he said.

I looked down at the mangled ETM, it’s red gauge still toward the bottom. “And so I just…”

“Point it and watch the gauge. Then go where it’s strongest.”

I chuckled. “Simple as that, huh?”

The Professor frowned. “Yes, simple as that.”

“Okay, well, I guess this is—”

“Maxwell you’re stalling.”

He was right. Somehow the whole thing just didn’t seem real. Never in a million years did I think I’d ever hear the Professor tell me to leave my post. But then, I never expected Zara to become Helen, and I never expected Helen to leave her house in the suburbs. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this job had been just one unexpected thing after another. In fact, the only consistent thing at all, to that point, had been surprises. The last thing I realized was that I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

I took a deep breath, said a prayer for Helen, and stepped back through the door.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Roth On the Future of the Novel

Philip Roth

Philip Roth. Photograph: Orjan F Ellingvag / Dagbladet / Corbis

[Roth's is a pessimistic view of the novel's future.]

Philip Roth's late run of productivity has long been a source of wonder in the literary world, with his latest novel coming out this week less than a year after the last, and another already complete. But the 76-year-old's own energy is not, according to him at any rate, any reflection of vibrant life in fiction itself. Roth has long been pessimistic about the survival of the novel in a gaudy, short-attention-span culture, but his latest prophesy is one of his bleakest yet, predicting that the form will dwindle to a "cultic" minority enthusiasm within 25 years.

Read more in The Guardian.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Looking Backwards

“…you can set in your window anywhere in Harlem and see plenty… But back windows ain’t much good for looking backwards nohow. I always did believe in look out front—looking ahead…”

The Sweet Flypaper of Life

Langston Hughes and Roy DeCarava

The Harlem photographer Roy DeCarava may be best known for one of the photographs that appeared in his 1955 collaboration with Langston Hughes. decarava_graduationGraduation captures a black girl in a white dress walking along a Harlem street. It is a photograph of opposites: white and black, shadow and light, the image of the luxury car opposed to the dilapidated cart, the word Prince, truncated. Still, it is not an ironic image. Poised as she negotiates her contradictory world, the girl has—to use an 18th-century word now in disuse—equanimity. The viewer feels that she has determined her path, and is confidently moving along it.

DeCarava took Graduation the same year that Partisan Review published James Baldwin’s scathing essay on Uncle Tom’s Cabin (another coincidence: the essay and ten others appeared in Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son in 1955, the year of DeCarava’s and Hughes’ collaboration). However dissimilar, DeCarava’s photograph and Baldwin’s essay address the state of blacks in America of the 1950s.

Baldwin’s attack on Harriet Beecher Stowe remains a power essay that is difficult to come to terms with. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he writes, “is a very bad novel,

having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart,; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.

Stowe was incapable of creating characters who are “resolutely indefinable, unpredictable,” whose fictional lives are a “web of ambiguity [and] paradox.” To create a “more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims” is the goal of the novelist. Stowe failed to achieve it.

If we accept Baldwin’s argument, what’s left of Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Stowe used conventions of the 19th-century sentimental novel, the ideas of the “culture of domesticity,” and evangelical reform thinking to craft her novel. Baldwin’s aversion to the novel comes in part from their continued influence. Baldwin, perhaps most bothered by the novel’s “theological terror, the terror of damnation” that causes Uncle Tom to forbear whatever his masters’ do to him, sees the “tragedy” of Bigger Thomas, hero of Richard Wright’s Native Son, as his acceptance of “a theology that denies him life, that he admits to the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained…” Wright, in Baldwin’s view, had taken Stowe’s Uncle Tom, lock, stock, and barrel, and turned him into his complement, a raging, diminished black man. Looking backward at Stowe’s novel of 1851, Baldwin saw black novelists in 1950 unable to move forward.

In a reappraisal of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Henry Louis Gates argues that Baldwin disliked sentimentality because, to Baldwin, it subverted sexuality, valuing false public displays of emotion over intimate and true feeling. Yet sentimentality was the only vehicle available to Stowe to express sexuality. As Gates demonstrates, a reader can find sexuality in nearly every chapter of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “lurking within and near the story’s sentimental treatment of marriage and family life. “ No where is this more apparent than in the marriage of Eliza and George. From the beginning, Stowe presents Eliza as an attractive, sexual woman, as when the author compares her to Harry, her son.

There was the same rich, full, dark eye, with its long lashes, the same ripples of silk black hair, The brown of her complexion gave way on the cheek to a perceptible flush, which deepened as she saw the gaze of the strange man fixed up her in bold and undisguised admiration.

Eliza’s sexual nature is not lost to either the strange man, the slave trader Haley. Eliza’s sexuality is described again later, during her escape north, when she learns that she will be reunited with George at the Quaker house, her temporary refuge. She imagines hearing “her husband’s footsteps; she felt him coming nearer; his arms were around her, his tears falling on her face, and she awoke!” By dismissing sentimentality as dishonest emotion, Baldwin seems to have missed the underlying sexual nature of Stowe’s novel.

Sentimentality stands as a great hurdle for today’s reader of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and one initially feels pulled to agree with Baldwin’s forceful argument. Stowe’s is a sentimental, polemical piece of fiction, more a pernicious political pamphlet than novel, isn’t it? That is how Baldwin saw the novel in the 1950s, and how we’ve been taught to think of it. “ To expose oneself in maturity to Uncle Tom may be a startling experience,” Edmund Wilson wrote in Patriotic Gore, his great work about the literature of the Civil War era. “Let us start with Uncle Tom’s Cabin” begins the book.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Entering Uncle Tom’s Cabin

I wonder what my good friend The English Teacher thinks of requiring high school students to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Would he like to see it as part of the core English curriculum, or an AP course? Would he introduce students to the work of Hawthorne’s “scribbling women” and offer a feminist critique of the academy’s rejection of 19th-century sentimental literature? To understand the novel, would students need more than half the class time devoted to Antebellum history? Wouldn’t Uncle Tom’s Cabin better be offered as a segment of the school’s American history course?

These questions came to mind as I read Jane Smiley’s introduction to Stowe’s novel. Uncle Tom’s Cabin “is not only a compelling, readable, wise, and well-constructed novel, but also the most important American literary document of the nineteenth century,” she writes. (Important because it “educated” northerners about the evils of slavery. But more likely, Stowe intensified northern feelings about a condition most northerners understood, yet had conveniently stowed in the backs of their minds.) The novel is “hot property…uncomfortable to read, hard to teach, controversial….It refuses to lie down and become a historical artifact…but continues to intrigue and offend and demand partisanship on the part of every reader.”

The first of my six adult class sessions on Uncle Tom’s Cabin made clear how hot the novel is. The class opened with a discussion of Sam and Andy’s antics that delay the slave trader Haley’s pursuit of Eliza as she flees north to Canada.

“Why have you been loitering so, Sam? [asks Mrs. Shelby] I sent Andy to tell you to hurry.”

“Lord bless you, Missis!” said Sam, “horses won’t be cotched all in a minit; they’d done clared out way down to the south pasture, and the Lord knows whar!”

“Sam, how often must I tell you not to say ‘Lord bless you, and the Lord knows,’ and such things? It’s wicked.”

"Oh Lord bless my soul; I done forgot..."

”Why, Sam, you just have said it again.”

“….Be careful of the horses, Sam;… don’t let them ride too fast.”

“Let dis child alone for dat! said Sam, rolling up his eyes with a volume of meaning.”

“I understand what Stowe is doing,” remarked one of the class, “but still…” Her reaction carries through the novel. But still… Because the world Stowe depicts offends us, we struggle to understand her achievement with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, hiding the novel’s cover in paper so bus riders won’t confront us, laughing uncomfortably at Stowe’s humor, feeling queasy about reading the novel at all. There is no other novel like it. The private musings of Leopold Bloom, the sexual obsessions of Proust’s Marcel, even the scatological world of a Houllebecq novel don’t hold a candle to the power of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to make us squirm.

Stowe’s novel is hot property, and the sweat brings with it aspects of our past that we had put out of mind. An ancestor of one of the class was a slaveholder in Missouri, having settled there after the Compromise of 1820, which allowed slavery in that state. Another was raised by a mammy, a common practice in the Texas region where his family lived. A young child in the fifties, I was in a tap dance recital, costumed in black face and white gloves. If we entered Uncle Tom’s Cabin thinking it a historical document of a time far removed from us, we’ve found that the distance between the world the novel depicts and us is not quite as great as we would like.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


When a graduate student teaching junior/senior seminars, I submitted a department proposal for a course that would trace the development of empiricism in literature and painting from the seventeenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, as I explained to the department committee. The course title, “Things,” reflected a breeziness in my proposal. I was offering it as a kind of throwaway joke. What I really wished to teach was a look at heroism in the early nineteenth century, a topic I was working up for my dissertation. When I opened the course assignments for the year, I found to my surprise that I was assigned to teach “Things.” In retrospect, the committee’s choice was inevitable; only a rare university junior or senior could possibly find an examination of 19th-century heroism interesting. I scrambled to get “Things” together.

Although an empirical bent winds its way through American culture, how writers and artists approached this urge, I would find as the course proceeded, became a bit complicated. In the twentieth century, however, two poets gave the tendency straightforward expression: William Carlo Williams and Robert Frost. It was from Williams’ poem “A Sort of Song” that I took my course title.

Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
---through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.

But I found my touchstone in Frost’s poetry. In “Mowing,” the speaker attempts to understand a truth that Nature seems to be telling him.

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours.
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spike of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

If the meaning of the whisper remains unknown, the source of the whisper, and so the possibility of truth (”anything more than truth would have seemed too weak”), is clear. The speaker will not receive truth as a gift nor achieve it through idleness or dreams. It must be worked for by engaging with stuff—facts.

The literary critic Richard Poirier, who died last week, sub-titled his book on Frost “The Work of Knowing.” “Poetry is not life,” Poirier observes of Frost, “but the performance in the writing of it can be an image of the proper conduct of life. The exercise of the will in poetry, the writing of a poem, is analogous to any attempted exercise of will in whatever one tries to do.” And, going on, Poirier gets to the core. “This position is not asserted, since the whole point, after all, is that nothing can be carried merely by assertion.” Writing is not reportage of a found truth, but the work of finding truth, as Richard Poirier himself showed us with his illuminating literary criticism.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Note Taking

All over the world people are taking notes as a way
of postponing, putting off and standing in for.
Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage

Note taking.
Goodbye logic, so long argument.

How soothing!

Out with reasoned conclusions.
We’re only open to insight!

John F. Kensett, you’re my man!

Write page on page of notes.
Fill an entire notebook
with thoughts
Swann’s Way.

Henry David Thoreau
and Marcel Proust.

There’s a pairing.

Is there a problem?
No need to explain.

It’s insight! How sublime!

Tired of note taking?


Note people on the beach

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

No. 1

My wife was visiting our local independent bookstore when writer, humorist, and TV reporter Greg Palmer was waiting to begin his first signing gig to promote Cheese Deluxe, his last book. Would he sign the book for her though the signing has not officially opened? Sure, he replied. He signed her copy: "Chris, You'll always be No. 1 in my book, Greg Palmer.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Following Story

When, Herbert Mussert, narrator of Ces Nooteboom’s The Following Story, wakes in Lisbon after having gone to sleep the evening before in Amsterdam, he finds himself in the bedroom where he began a love affair 20 years earlier. A pedantic, elitist misogynist, Mussert—“Meatball” to his lover—taught classics in a Lisbon private school. Now mysteriously in Lisbon again, he tells us that he writes Dr. Strabo’s travel books, carefully withholding information about important writers from the “fools” and “sods” who buy the guides.

Dr. Strabo’s Portugal guide limits information about Ferdinand Pessoa to a description of Lisbon’s Brasileira, where the poet drank nightly. “For the rest I’d rather keep my mouth shut,” Mussert writes. He won’t “breathe a word about... the liquid multiform persona who still roams the streets of Lisbon in all his brilliance, who has insinuated himself invisibly in tobacconists, quaysides, walls, dark cafes…” Having left teaching decades before, Mussert has no interest in educating, especially the plebian readers of his guides. Travelers who had written about his failure to explain how to read the clock in the British Bar. “Ninety-one correspondents have so far explained to me that you can tell the proper time on the clock by looking in the mirror. Only they didn’t add ‘meatball’.”

The wall of the Lisbon bedroom holds a portrait of the “overestimated” Luis de Camoes, generally considered Portugal’s greatest poet, and an engraving of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. We may take the portrait as a sign of Mussert’s elitism and his greater admiration of Pessoa. The engraving is a reminder of a seminal event in Lisbon’s history, the earthquake that killed as many as 100,000 people.

The effects of the disaster extended far beyond Portugal, shaking many in Europe and America of their belief in God’s benevolent plan for the world. Most famously, Voltaire used the earthquake in Candide to attack the logic of Leibniz’s assertion that this is the best of all possible worlds. The tremors reached Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. in Boston a century after the quake. Holmes, a physician, had made important advances in containing communicable disease, coined the word “anesthetic,” and developed the stethoscope into a modern medical instrument. His was a scientific mind open to rationality and closed to “forms of speculation which involve an approach to the absurd.”

The quote comes from Holmes’ The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, a once hugely popular collection of mostly one-sided conversations between a narrator and guests at a boarding house. The Autocrat includes the poem about the “one-hoss-shay,” the story of a deacon’s futile attempt to build a buggy that will not wear out, as all buggies must. The deacon finishes building the buggy on the day of the Lisbon earthquake. The buggy disintegrates all at once exactly one hundred years later. “Logic is logic,” the poem concludes.

Written in mid-nineteenth century Boston, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table is unflaggingly optimistic about the power of rational thought to advance civilization. “All economical and practical wisdom is an extension or variation of the following arithmetical formula: 2 + 2 = 4,” the autocrat declares in the book’s opening paragraph. The deacon’s effort to build an everlasting buggy violates the universal, empirically verifiable logic implied by this formula, as do attempts to account for a deity who would prevent disaster in the face of forces that threaten catastrophe.

Faced with the carnage of the Civil War, Holmes’ son, who later would become one of the great justices of the United States Supreme Court, went further than his father, jettisoning logic and rationality for the time being because they were useless in explaining the war experience. Echoing his father’s arithmetical formula, Holmes Jr. wrote home from the battlefield, “I have you scout the possibility of the human reason ever conceiving that 1+1=3 and 2+2=5—and further deny the possibility of the truth of this proposition.” It can be true, the young Holmes argues, “wh.[en] our senses would present us of the juxtaposition of one perceptible to a second” that results in a third. The argument is cryptic, drawing upon the writings of a long-forgotten Dutch physicist, but it was important enough for Holmes to keep in the diary he heavily edited after the war.

The volumes that have been written about the sea change in rationality and faith since Holmes’ day would make a substantial private library in themselves. We, however, have no need to trace the meandering path that has led us to accept without a blink how space and time fragment and slip away from Herbert Mussert. Mussert is talking to us when he says of one of his fellow voyagers at the end of the novel, “he had been taken by how logically—that was the word he had used—his life had taken its course.”

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Breaking through Appearance

It is perhaps wholly coincidental that dissociation—the disintegration of a person’s psychological integrity—figures in Moby-Dick and Swann’s Way as a way to break through Appearance to what the narrator perceives as Truth. Early in Moby-Dick, Ishmael experiences a disconcerting dissociative experience when waking to find Queequeg beside him in bed. “My sensations were strange,” remarks Ishmael, who goes on to recount a similar experience when he was a child. “The circumstance was this,” he tells us.

I had been cutting up some caper or other - I think it was trying to crawl up the chimney, as I had seen a little sweep do a few days previous; and my stepmother who, somehow or other, was all the time whipping me, or sending me to bed supperless, - my mother dragged me by the legs out of the chimney and packed me off to bed, though it was only two o'clock in the afternoon of the 21st June, the longest day in the year in our hemisphere.

Ishmael lay in bed for a time, calculating how many more hours he’d be condemned to his room. Finally, in desperation, he went to his stepmother, begging to be released from his punishment, but “she was the best and most conscientious of stepmothers, and back I had to go to my room.” Eventually falling asleep, then into a nightmare, from which he slowly awoke.

I opened my eyes, and the before sun-lit room was now wrapped in outer darkness. Instantly I felt a shock running through all my frame; nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard; but a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine. My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bedside. For what seemed ages piled on ages, I lay there, frozen with the most awful fears, not daring to drag away my hand; yet ever thinking that if I could but stir it one single inch, the horrid spell would be broken. I knew not how this consciousness at last glided away from me; but waking in the morning, I shudderingly remembered it all...

In his Melville biography Andrew Delbanco argues this passage signifies Ishmael’s release from the bonds of tradition and a society that strictly defined and rejected those who did not share its values. Whether Delbanco means the childhood punishment or the recounting of it isn’t clear, but the dissociation is, in any case, the ground on which Ishmael can stand to establish his friendship with the cannibalistic, Polynesian harpooner.

The young Marcel has a similar, if less troubling, experience while watching a magic lantern in his Combray bedroom. The lantern projects a scene from the medieval story of Geneviève de Brabant. The seducer Golo rides toward the her castle, his “mind filled with an infamous design.” “The body of Golo himself,” Marcel says,

being of the same supernatural substance as his steed's, overcame all material obstacles--everything that seemed to bar his way--by taking each as it might be a skeleton and embodying it in himself: the door-handle, for instance, over which, adapting itself at once, would float invincibly his red cloak or his pale face, never losing its nobility or its melancholy, never showing any sign of trouble at such a transubstantiation.

As the lantern opens “mystery and beauty” onto Marcel’s bedroom, he feels an “anesthetic effect,” just as Ishmael’s sense of bodily disengagement characterizes his awakening from the nightmare. In both cases, a momentary disintegration of the narrator’s sense of psychological coherence reveals mystery.

Ishmael and Marcel are alike also in their reluctance to embrace the dissociation that each experiences. Ishmael tells us that “for days and weeks and months afterwards I lost myself in confounding attempts to explain the mystery.” As he laid next to Queequeg recounting his childhood banishment, his “sensations at feeling the supernatural hand in mine were very similar, in their strangeness, to those which I experienced on waking up and seeing Queequeg's pagan arm thrown round me.”

Yet, he quickly is able to place himself in the inn and integrate his recent memories “one by one, in fixed reality.” Instead of mystery accompanied by terror, Ishmael finds this time “alive to the comical predicament.”

Marcel too is shaken by the radical alteration of the familiar. “I cannot express the discomfort I felt at such an intrusion of mystery and beauty into a room which I had succeeded in filling with my own personality,” he writes. He is disturbed by the effect dissociation has had on his customary life. Opening the door-handle of his room had been habitual and unconscious; it “was different to me from all the other doorhandles in the world, inasmuch as it seemed to open of its own accord and without my having to turn it.” The lantern had transformed it into “an astral body for Golo” and—introducing a point that Proust returns to many times in the Search—the momentary replacement of habit by mystery became a threat to simply going on with life.

This threat is dramatically illustrated in "The Try-Works" chapter of Moby-Dick. With responsibility for steering the Pequod, Ishmael is drawn into the nighttime activity of the crew working the try works. Watching the “fiend shapes” as they moved about the deck, he began to see “kindred visions” and an “unaccountable drowsiness” descended upon him.

But that night, in particular, a strange (and ever since inexplicable) thing occurred to me. Starting from a brief standing sleep, I was horribly conscious of something fatally wrong. The jaw-bone tiller smote my side, which leaned against it; in my ears was the low hum of sails, just beginning to shake in the wind; I thought my eyes were open; I was half conscious of putting my fingers to the lids and mechanically stretching them still further apart. But, spite of all this, I could see no compass before me to steer by; though it seemed but a minute since I had been watching the card, by the steady binnacle lamp illuminating it. Nothing seemed before me but a jet gloom, now and then made ghastly by flashes of redness … Convulsively my hands grasped the tiller, but with the crazy conceit that the tiller was, somehow, in some enchanted way, inverted.

Ishmael had turned himself around, facing the stern of the Pequod. “In an instant I faced back, just in time to prevent the vessel from flying up into the wind, and very probably capsizing her.” Melville and Proust both show us that dissociation may yield mysteries unseen without the momentary dissolution of one’s personality, but it carries with it the danger of radically disrupting life.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Moby-Dick Reading Group

For those in the Seattle area (sorry, we don't have the capability to phone you who live far away), Richard Hugo House is offering a six-week reading group on Moby-Dick. I'll be leading the group. I have a non-reductive approach--I'm not tempted to find the meaning of Melville's masterpiece. In addition to discussing the text, I will be presenting mini-talks on various aspects of 19th-century American culture that are relevant to the novel, including a slide show on American landscape painting.

The class will be one heck of a lot of fun.

The class begins January 20th and meets on Tuesday evenings from seven to nine.

Join us!